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Best Visual Effects has long been one of the most "mainstream" of the Oscar categories. It’s always filled with blockbusters and films which have made lots of money. This year, though, beyond the race for the win (it would appear), the race for nominations is fairly wide open.
In recent years, the category has moved more and more toward 3D, which is not surprising given that that is where spectacle tends to be most on display, and it is also where money tends to be invested. When top-tier talents such as James Cameron, Martin Scorsese and Ang Lee were jumping aboard 3D, it hardly seemed surprising that Oscar followed. The work, like the names involved, was that much better.
Another recent trend I have observed is the Academy picking a film that many may have thought forgotten and certainly not on its way to being an Oscar nominee. Examples in recent years would be "Snow White and the Huntsman," "Real Steel" and "Hereafter." I don’t mean to suggest that these nominations were undeserved – just unexpected.
Being a Best Picture contender doesn’t hurt, especially in the race for the win, but the vast majority of nominees in this category tend not to be contenders – or anywhere close to them – in the top category.
So, to say that a race is over in October may seem absurd. But I don’t really see how Alfonso Cuarón’s "Gravity" can lose this race. And indeed, many expected competitors are already squaring themselves with that fact. Anchored by Oscar winner Neil Corbould and Oscar nominee Tim Webber, this visual effects crew crafted a space odyssey that has mesmerized everyone from the highbrow film critics to mainstream audiences. Cuarón seems poised to join Cameron, Scorsese and Lee in having directed a 3D film to a win here.
The only other film that seems reasonably assured of a spot is Peter Jackson’s "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." Though this series is nowhere near the peak it reached in days of "The Lord of the Rings," Joe Letteri’s crew seems too respected to miss out for this series and they continues to push the limits. That is particularly true for this film, with the new arrival of the (second) title character. Though nothing is a lock before it's seen.
Beyond that, things become more difficult. In the realm of summer blockbusters, there were few outright failures but there were several titles that were at least mildly disappointing.
"Man of Steel" tried to reboot the Superman franchise to mixed success. The film's reception was respectable, as was the box office, but it didn't exactly set the world on fire. However, the effects were omnipresent, in a good way. If it finds a home anywhere, it’s here. The creation of Krypton was particularly remarkable. Allen Hall, Joe Letteri and Guillaume Rocheron have seven Oscars between them.
"Star Trek Into Darkness" tried to build upon the success of a particularly clever reboot, as J.J. Abrams reunited the cast and much of the crew behind 2009's "Star Trek." Most observers viewed this as a step down from the fantastic 2009 film. However, the reviews and box office remained quite respectable. So I'd reckon that this visual effects team, which includes Oscar winners Burt Dalton, Alex Henning and Ben Grossmann, and nominees Roger Guyett and Paul Kavanagh, is very much in the running.
"Iron Man 3" was considered a relatively disappointing entry into the world of Tony Stark. But "relatively" is the applicable word here. Both of the predecessors in this category scored a Best Visual Effects nomination and this film was still liked. Oscar nominees Daniel Sudick and Erik Nash may well find themselves going to Oscar night again.
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